Writer Bill McKibben takes on a bet that he can make it through a winter eating food grown only in his native Vermont.
GELLERMAN: This is apple harvest time here in New England and fresh picked local varieties can now be found at roadside stands and farmers' markets. This is a season New Englanders cherish, and it couldn't have come too soon for Bill McKibben.
McKIBBEN: The apples in my market annoy me. They’re from China and New Zealand and Washington state, and I live in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, one of the world’s great apple-growing regions. So, what an annoying waste of energy to fly these Red Delicious in from halfway around the planet. And what a waste of taste—these things have been bred for just one purpose-- endurance. Mostly, though, they’re annoying because they don’t come with connections, with stories. They’ve been grown on ten thousand-acre plantations with the latest industrial methods and the highest possible efficiency. They’re cheap, I give you that. But they’re so dull.
[HUMMING SOUND OF CIDER PRESS]
McKIBBEN: The roar you hear is a cider press. It belongs to my neighbor, Bill Suhr. His fifty-acre orchard produced a million pounds of apples last year, so he’s not a backyard hobbyist.
SUHR: This time of year we’re putting six varieties in: the Macintosh, Empire, Cortland, Macoun, Northern Spy, and Jonagold.
McKIBBEN: I drank a lot of Bill Suhr’s cider this past winter because I’d asked the editors at Gourmet magazine if I could perform an experiment: could I make it through the winter feeding myself entirely on the food of this northern New England valley where I live. Up until 75 years ago or so, everyone who lived here obviously ate close to home—an orange or a banana was a Christmas-time treat.
And that’s still how most people on the planet eat. But I knew that most of the infrastructure that once made that possible was now missing. Our food system operates on the principle that it’s always summer somewhere, so it’s forgotten how to get through winter. How many houses have a root cellar? Not mine. If I was going to make it, I would need to make connections with my neighbors. Ben Gleason, for instance.
GLEASON: Well, let’s see, last year I went through I believe, 32 tons of wheat. Spring and summer were just wonderful and I thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to have a normal year in Vermont,” but then it started raining and it just go so wet that I had problems in harvesting. Almost everybody did.
McKIBBEN: Ben Gleason grows wheat on his farm in the nearby town of Bridport, Vermont. I’d always imagined wheat just came from the Midwest, and indeed, that’s where it can be grown most cheaply. But Ben’s been growing it for a quarter century here, hard red winter wheat which he grinds himself in a little shed next to his barn and then sells at the local co-op for 59 cents a pound, not much more than the stuff from the giant mills.
[SCOOP DIGGING IN THE WHEAT BIN]
GLEASON: This is the bread flour.
McKIBBEN: Ecologically it makes a lot of sense: instead of traveling 1,500 miles like the average bite of American food, it only needed to cover ten miles before it reached my kitchen. And since it’s easily available, it’s starting to help other local businesses turn more local. The local pizzeria makes its dough with it, and the local bagel shop. And some of it—some of it goes to our local brewery, Otter Creek, owned by Morgan Wolaver
WOLAVER: I would love nothing more than to be able to survive financially in producing beer for the state of Vermont. Local beers are more fresh.
McKIBBEN: By Christmas-time, I’d settled into my routine. Local oats for breakfast, or pancakes. Maple syrup is the quintessential Vermont crop. Cheese sandwich for lunch—the local cheese factory is right next to the brewery. And for dinner, some potatoes, some carrots, some squash, some beets, and some creature—something that had been baa-ing or moo-ing or snorting a few weeks before, busy converting the grass of this valley into protein.
McKIBBEN: Some of my favorite protein came from Essex Farm, on the New York side of Lake Champlain. Mark Gunther and his wife, Kristin Kimball, opened this enterprise two years ago. You sign up to be a member and then you appear every Friday afternoon and Mark loads up your car with food.
GUNTHER: We have carrots, cabbage, beets, celery root, turnips, leeks, onions, pumpkins, butternut and buttercup squash, parsley, and kale all harvested fresh today. I think that’s about the vegetable department.
McKIBBEN: But the vegetable department is only the beginning. They’ve got a small beef herd, so there are always steaks and hamburger in the freezer. The pigs produce bacon and ham. The chickens and the turkeys taste good, too.
[SOUND OF CHICKENS]
McKIBBEN: They raise bees, they grow their own wheat. Except for dental floss, you’d never need to set foot in a store again.
McKIBBEN: Today, Mark is making cheeseburgers for lunch.
GUNTHER: This is beef from the bull that we ate for our wedding, and this is hamburger from him. We called him Charlie. So it’s Charlie, with a little bit of Rea and Delia and Melissa in the cheese.
McKIBBEN: Mark Gunther is even more interested in local than I am. And yet there’s nothing particularly grim or Luddite about his life. Just the opposite.
GUNTHER: There’s nothing inherent about modern ways that I don’t support. I’m trying to find out ways to increase the quality of my life, and I think, by extension, the lives of those around me.
McKIBBEN: In fact, Mark is at least as much an innovator as a throwback. When his wife, Kristin, got tired of churning butter by hand every week, he came up with a solution:
GUNTHER: I realized that someone had given us a fold-out bed, and that, probably, if I opened that up and put the milk can on it and bounced it, that I could be able to make butter quickly. And so now my weekly ritual has been every Tuesday or Wednesday night to turn on some Latino rhythms that I feel like listening to and I kind of do a kind of modified jumping dance with my fifty pounds of stainless steel and cream. Usually within about 600-700 bounces I open it up and find 10-12 pounds of butter ready to be rinsed and worked.
McKIBBEN: And his butter tastes great, too; maybe even better because I know its story. I’m not going to claim that every day of this experiment was pure gustatory bliss. There were moments when I sympathized with my daughter, Sophie.
McKIBBEN: Can you tell the difference between a parsnip and a turnip?
SOPHIE: No, I don’t want to. They’re disgusting.
McKIBBEN: When spring came, I was happy to eat the odd banana and drink the occasional pint of Guinness Stout. But I don’t think I’m ever going back to eating the way I used to. I could give you a lot of good reasons—there’s a British study, for instance, that just came out proving that eating local helped the environment twice as much even as eating organic. But all that’s just an excuse. I’m hooked on the connections to the place I live. I spent the winter eating with my mind as well as my tongue, consuming connections along with my calories. It was the best dining I've ever done. I'm not going back to orange juice. I'm sticking with cider.
GELLERMAN: Bill McKibben is the author of "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks." His story on local food was produced by Jay Allison, Chelsea Merz, and Viki Merrick. Special thanks to the public radio website, Transom-Dot-Org, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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